Interview: Angelika Schuster and Tristan Sindelgruber from SPIEGELGRUND

     |    Tuesday, der 7. September 2010

The "Spiegelgrund" building


Interview with Angelika Schuster and Tristan Sindelgruber  SPIEGELGRUND

Part 1

I would assume that making a film about such a taboo subject probably meant that some doors weren’t open right from the beginning..

AS: We received a lot of support from a variety of places. It was easy getting a film permit at the clinic. When the preliminaries against Gross began it was difficult to film in the memorial room that was built 1989.

It seems that people from Austria are the ones who have problems with Austrian bureaucracy. No one seems to be in charge, everyone passes the buck. It’s an unending game until someone drops a line like “we’re working together with Hamburg” or something similar. When it becomes clear that there are international connections involved then things happen fast. Affairs like the one involving Gross often start rolling when foreign media shows up. Things that go on domestically only seem to be taken less seriously.

How long did you work on the project?

TS: Luckily for us, a journalist provided us with a large amount of existing research material. I couldn’t estimate the amount of time it took. We began conceptualizing the film in November, 1998. The film was finished in December, 1999.

For several months, our days looked like this: mornings we worked on persuading funding sources. Afternoons we worked on the content and the technical aspects of the film itself. Later in the day we were confronted with the worries, fears and concerns of the people who were collaborating on the film with us. We worked around the clock.

What parts of the Baumgartner Höhe Hospital comprise Spiegelgrund?

AS: On the one hand, Spiegelgrund was a reformatory for young people. It was known for a time as the Wiener Städtische Jugendfürsorgeanstalt and included a number of pavilions. Pavilions 15 and 17 housed the so-called treatment and nursing facility.

Who was confined there?

AS: Records from the facility turned up very late. Youth who didn’t fit in the system, regardless of the reason, were interned there. Maybe they had rickets, or had trouble fitting in socially. Sometimes the parents raised political red flags, so to speak. Mental and physical handicap was an oft recurring definition at the time.

The pavilions 15 and 17 were mainly for children who were, according to the regime, impossible to integrate into the system – in other words – unemployable. It can be assumed that those were the children and teens who were subject to medical abuse.

TS: The killing became more and more unrestrained. The facility was kept operational by having people with handicaps there, so that if necessary, it could be converted into hospitals for the civilian population. This is how women and girls from Hamburg ended up in Vienna. Hamburg was bombed early in Allied campaigns. To make room for the bombing victims, the handicapped facility residents were immediately thrown out and deported.

After the war it was difficult to prove that we were dealing with the extermination of human life done in a planned and systematic fashion.

AS: Not that it would have been particularly difficult. There were more medical records back then. One could have done a lot with eye witness reports. In the years immediately following 1945, there was a strong interest and willingness to punish those responsible for the atrocities. There was so much material, it was impossible to cope with it and later no one wanted to be bothered.

Who at Spiegelgrund was held accountable immediately after the war?

TS: A facility director, a female doctor and one nurse. After that nothing more was done and a huge number of files disappeared.

How were you affected psychologically during the course of the project?

AS: A good way to explain it is with the memorial room. As long as I was filming, the camera acted as a kind of shield and I wouldn’t agonize about what I was filming. But a few hours later, reviewing what we shot on the monitor, I’d leave the room because I couldn’t take it. What you see is bad enough, but when you hear stories from people who are still alive today, that is an entirely different plane. While we were working we had to keep our concentration. We just wanted to make a good film about Spiegelgrund that slices through history from then to now. Doing it meant a big responsibility toward the survivors. The pressure was such that there was no room for our own existential sensitivities.

The concept for the film is based on a chronology of witness testimony and scientific and scholarly statements. Interspersed are long takes showing the pavilions – the silent witnesses, so to speak.

TS: The exteriors of the facility complex represents the story as a whole – everything leads back to that location. At the same time, we slice through history from the 1940’s to the present. There were often very intense statements made by those affected and we didn’t want to jump to the next sequence without a transition. We wanted to give viewers a space that could be used for reflection.

From the beginning, we didn’t want to use narrative commentary. Those who appear in the film would tell the story themselves. But it proved to be too difficult.

How did you choose people to be interviewed?

AS: At the time we began to film, there were only two people who talked openly about time from their childhood spent at Spiegelgrund: Alois Kaufmann, who wrote a book about it, and Friedrich Zawrel. A historian friend of mine made the contact to Alois Kaufmann. We didn’t want to be too pushy. He was immediately willing to work with us. He is someone whose very life centers around Spiegelgrund. Every discussion, every occurrence reminds him of Spiegelgrund. Antje Kosemund put us into contact with Herrn Roggenthien. We were his first contact with the media.

What role did scientists and academics play in the documentation process?

TS: We wanted experts in the field to supply additional information about certain topics that have been little examined up to now. It was also a way to relieve the victims from having to explain factual knowledge. But it was not because we wanted to have experts legitimize the victim’s statements. That has been part of the victim ordeal since 1945 – having to prove things. They laid out a briefcase on the table at the start of an interview because they always have the feeling that they have to prove something.

Interview: Karin Schiefer

© Austrian Film Commission